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Episode 46

The National Gallery Podcast

In the August 2010 podcast, Velázquez, the history of optical instruments, and 'The Judgement of King Midas'.

17 min 34 sec | August 2010

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. In this month’s show: We shed some light on the history of optical instruments... and what happened to Midas when he got bored with all that gold...


Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start with an anniversary. It was 350 years ago this month, on the 6th August 1660, that the great Spanish painter Diego Velázquez died at the age of 61.Velázquez came from relatively humble stock. But by the end of his life he'd become such an influential figure at court that his funeral was a grand and solemn affair. His rise was largely due to his unique relationship with his life-long patron, King Philip IV of Spain. To find out more, Leah Kharibian met curator Xavier Bray in front of one of Velázquez's greatest portraits of the King.

Xavier Bray: He arrived at the age of 24, so he’s very young. But at the same time you have to remember the king also was very young. If I recall he was just one year older, so they were pretty much the same age. And Velazquez was given for his contacts that he had in Madrid, a sitting to paint a portrait of the King. And he just painted the head - unfortunately that’s lost – but what we can imagine, it was incredibly focused, but very realistic. And everybody at the court was just amazed at the technique that he had and Velazquez got the job pretty much straight away.

Leah Kharibian: Now Velazquez rapidly rose through the ranks to become painter to the king and his job was essentially to paint portraits of the king and the royal family. If you could take us through this astonishing portrait here.

Xavier Bray: Well, here we have a portrait that he paints a bit later, sort of ten years into his career as court portrait painter. And it shows Philip the IV wearing his favourite suit, which is made out of brown and silver, silver thread, so it’s an incredibly decorative costume that he’s wearing. And you see this figure standing, looking out at you with his left hand on his sword, and then holding a piece of paper.

And it’s a very rigid posture – this is how the King wanted to be portrayed, earlier portraits show him in exactly the same pose, and later portraits also show him in exactly the same pose, so this was the format that Velazquez had to paint.

Leah Kharibian: Was this a foible of his own, or was this something to do with Spanish court behaviour?

Xavier Bray: It was very much part of Spanish etiquette. There’s a very strict system at the court of who has access to the King and it was incredibly rigid. I mean the only people who sort of broke the rules were the dwarves and in a way the painters, because the painters had that sort of creativity that allowed them to be different to the rest of the household.

Leah Kharibian: Well, the National Gallery has many fantastic masterpieces by Velazquez but the one picture I’d like us to go and have a look at next is the King, but at a much later stage in his life.

So we’re now standing in front of a portrait of King Philip the IV which is just bust height, not a full length portrait, painted in about 1656. Can you describe it for us?

Xavier Bray: Well, for me this portrait it’s as if you were actually witnessing the sitting between Philip the IV and Velazquez because it’s so informal and this is Philip the IV, you know, he’s old, his skin is sagging almost, he’s still pretty much blond, but you can see the wispiness of white hair. But we know from Philip the IV when he wrote to his confessor, this nun, saying that ‘I’ve got to sit for Velazquez again and I’m almost dreading it – every time he paints me he shows me getting older’. And it’s true that Velazquez almost can’t resist to paint what he sees before him and indeed a good friend of his when he saw this portrait said ‘it’s so life-like’, and he added ‘you can feel the spirit of the man in the portrait’.

So this is what made Velazquez unique was in his ability to capture not only the sitter’s physiognomy but the spirit of the person sitting for him.

Leah Kharibian: Now by this date Velazquez had become Chamberlain to the Royal Household, a very very elevated position that left him in charge of extraordinary things, not only re-hanging the court paintings but also in charge of things like the sheets...

Xavier Bray: Yeah, Velazquez had almost become a curator, like us lot here at the National Gallery, looking after the collection. But he really wanted to be recognised for his incredible talent as a painter. And painters in Spain were generally regarded as craftsmen and he was trying to break those shackles and make painting a liberal art, like poetry or music. And the only way he really could pull that off was finally by getting a knighthood and one of the most prestigious knighthoods he could get was the knight of Santiago. So the way to do it was to petition the king to help him out.

The problem is that Velazquez had no noble blood in him and actually going against him was the fact that he probably had Jewish blood and that was totally against the rules. You had to be a pure blood to become a knight. So he spent a long time trying to pull out papers to prove that he had some kind of noble connection through his mother. But eventually it was thanks to the King and the Pope, Innocent the Tenth, whom he’d painted earlier on, who basically intervened and said ‘this man should get the knight of Santiago for his skills as a painter’. And in 1658 he finally gets it.

Leah Kharibian: So do you think it’s because of this very particular relationship with Philip the IVth that Velazquez is able to achieve this glory at the end of his career?

Xavier Bray: I think it is. Because they grew up together, they developed together, I think they taught each other quite a lot of things. Velazquez discovered the Royal Collection. Philip the IV trusted him with buying pictures and sculptures for the collection. They must have just loved the whole dilettante connoisseurship aspects of collecting. And at the same time, Philip gave him incredible opportunities. And he gave basically Velazquez freedom to discover himself and for me that’s one of the greatest things that a patron could do – let him be.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Xavier Bray. You might like to know that the Gallery has an extensive collection of works by Velazquez; Leah and Xavier were discussing his two portraits of Philip the Fourth of Spain on display in room 30.

The Judgement of King Midas

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Many of the paintings in the National Gallery are inspired by classical myths, and by one work in particular – Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Indeed, the 17th century artist, Domenichino, created a cycle of ten frescoes featuring scenes from the book. We asked storyteller Hugh Lupton to choose one of his paintings and tell us a tale. He selected The Judgement of King Midas, a picture that shows what happened next to King Midas after all that gold...

Hugh Lupton: King Midas was walking deep in a forest far from his palace, far from the glitter and the glimmer of golden statues and the clink and the chink of golden coins. And as he was walking, he saw in a clearing there was Pan, the god of wild things, the god of wild places, and he was amazed. Pan was playing his pipes. King Midas crouched behind the bushes and he watched and he listened.

Pan was playing and playing and playing his pipes and then he lowered his pipes from his lips and he began to boast. ‘I’m the finest musician of them all. I’m the finest musician in the world. I’m a finer musician even than golden Apollo when he plucks his golden lyre’. Well, nothing is hidden from the ears and the eyes of the mighty gods, and straight away Apollo appeared in the clearing in front of Pan and King Midas. Two gods glowering at one another! And Apollo said ‘Pan, we will have a contest of music, you and I, and the judge will be this mountain’ and he gestured to a great mountain called Tomolus (sp?) that rose up high above the tops of the trees. And as Apollo gestured with his hand, a strange thing. On either side of the mountain, two huge grey stone ears unfolded. And the first to play was Pan.

He lifted his pipes to his lips and he blew and in his music were all the sounds of wild nature. The baying and the belling of stags, the howling of wolves, the pounding of hooves, the creaking of branches, the crashing of flood water, the humming of bees, the bright songs of birds. It was a music both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

And then Pan lowered his pipes and it was golden Apollo’s turn. He lifted his lyre to his shoulder and he began to play and to any one listening it was as though the strings of his lyre were the threads of the loom upon which the whole world is woven. Every note was an element, every melody was a formula, and as the shimmering, cascading music came, the whole of creation held its breath. And when Apollo lowered his lyre from his shoulder, the whole world sighed. Pan dropped to his knees and lowered his head. And the great mountain Tomolus opened its cavernous cave of a mouth and pronounced ‘Apollo is the winner’. And then from behind the bushes there came a voice. ‘No! Why should the victory go to golden Apollo? Why should the victory go to the plinkety plonk of a plucked lyre when Pan’s music is the real thing. Pan’s music is finer by far.’ It was King Midas. Golden Apollo turned and looked at him and frowned. And with the frown of Apollo a strange thing. King Midas felt suddenly changed. He lifted his hands to his face and his ears had moved. They were no longer growing out of the sides of his head; they were growing out of the top of his head. Two grey hairy twitching bristling donkey’s ears.

For one appalling moment he waited to see if the transformation was going to spread downwards. But no. Just his ears. Those ears that had listened and had not heard had been turned into the ears of an ass.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Hugh Lupton. Come along to the gallery if you’d like to see The Judgement of King Midas for yourself, it’s on display in room 13. And you can also find it and the rest of what are known as the Aldobrandini Frescoes on the website at


Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): When we think of artist’s equipment, it’s perhaps of fairly low tech items like pencils, chalks, brushes and paints.  But from the Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century many artists experimented with optical instruments in a bid to more accurately record the world.  One of these instruments was known as the ‘Camera obscura’.

To find out more, Leah Kharibian made a special trip to Oxford.

Leah Kharibian: I’m here at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford with the director Jim Bennett to look at some of the museum’s fascinating collection of optical instruments. These are objects of types used right up into the middle of the 19th century by both artists and scientists, and Jim, you’ve really very kindly got some of these instruments out of their display cases, so we can give them a closer look. Some appear a good deal more complicated than others. Could we start off with one of the simpler ones... this rectangular box, for instance? It’s made of wood and has a lens at one end of it. What is it?

Jim Bennett: It’s called a camera obscura, which just means a dark room, because originally these things really were rooms, you went inside and there was a window and the lens which we now see at one end of the box, was in a kind of window, and the projection screen was a wall. So it’s a camera obscura but this is a portable one that you could carry around with you. I suppose it’s a drawing aid essentially, but it’s also a kind of novelty, it’s an object of wonder. Somehow looking at screen and seeing what’s in front of you, perfectly evidently to your eyes, but then somehow in the box is a curiosity – it makes people surprised.

Leah Kharibian: Now these boxes basically and the rooms themselves, captured an image of the outside world and projected them onto a flat surface. Now could you tell me how this particular one does that.

Jim Bennett: Yes, there’s a lens at one end, a concave lens, what we call a positive lens, and that’s on a tube which moves in and out from the main body of the box...

Leah Kharibian: So it can be focused...

Jim Bennett: For a focus... just like a camera focus. Indeed these things are the origins of photographic cameras, it’s just that the photographic camera does the drawing for you. But in a case such as this, the light is focused by the lens inside the box and it does fall on the screen in the way that it would do with a camera.

Leah Kharibian: This is beneath a flap...

Jim Bennett: Yes. In the slightly earlier versions the screen would be vertical here and you would be looking at an upside down image just as you would with plate camera. But in this case, this is a little more advanced in that it’s a reflex action because there’s a mirror at 45 degrees just here inside the near end of the box which reflects the image up onto this ground glass screen and also means that you’re looking at it the right way up.

Leah Kharibian: Now I have a piece of tracing paper here and a pencil and if I were to put these bits of paper actually on the screen I’m a bit perplexed because I’m not seeing an awful lot on the ground glass screen in order to do my tracing. What’s going wrong?

Jim Bennett: The problem here is we don’t have enough light. Really these things work best outside and I can imagine that at the time that they were common when there wasn’t even electric light, there was oil light or candle, they’d be a bit underwhelming as far as we were concerned. They wouldn’t give you a very bright image at all. In fact, as you said, we’re struggling to see anything in this one. But if we take it outside I think we’d have a very different effect.

Leah Kharibian: Now looking at this box which obviously can be carried by hand, this seems fairly handy for taking out of doors perhaps and recording a landscape, but still not necessarily that easy to balance on one knee or you’d have to rest it on something but other camera obscura were incredibly bulky.

Jim Bennett: Yes, some were smaller. I mean we have an 18th century one which we can’t show you today because it’s on loan which is much smaller than this. It’s almost a pocket sized one, so they come in a whole range. As you know there are also some that are architectural - they’re built into a building. And you go into a room and those ones are still operating often as public spectacles. But yes, in between those two there are quite bulky ones which perhaps come in a tent, or you set them up with a tripod and there’s a tent. The camera lens is in the apex of the tent and you creep inside and you’re able to sit down and you perhaps have a little writing desk or drawing desk for drawing on, so they can be very very elaborate.

Leah Kharibian: But did it have any other use other than for people who were interested in capturing images for artistic purposes?

Jim Bennett: It depends what you mean by use. There’s a sort of magic to it. After all a picture is something you carry into a room and you hang it on a wall and you take it off again and you carry it out if you want to have a succession of them. This makes pictures appear out of nothing on the wall and then they disappear again out of nothing so... And these objects are partly in that tradition... they play on the wonder that can be achieved by optics but they certainly appear in my world in the 18th century about the wonders that can be achieved with all sorts of natural means, like cogs and wheels and clocks and machines and automata and so on. So it’s very much in that world for me rather than in the world of the artist.

Leah Kharibian: And finally you’ve got a very beautiful advert in the museum archives for a fixed camera obscura, one that you could walk inside that was built in Southport in the late 19th century and it still has the words ‘natural magic’ written as part of the attraction. That seems marvellous to me actually.

Jim Bennett: That’s part of the appeal. In fact as I was putting things together for your visit I was thinking ‘we should do an exhibition on natural magic’ because I’m sure the appeal is still there.

Leah Kharibian: Wonderful, thank you very much indeed.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Jim Bennett, director of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford.

That’s it for this episode. If you’re visiting, don’t forget the National Gallery is open 10 till 6 daily and 10 till 9 on Fridays. You can find information about any of the works in the collection including where to find them at Along with up to date news of all our exhibitions and events.

‘Till next month, goodbye.